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Spirit in the sky
A US region 0 DVD review of WHEN I DIE by Slarek
 
When you die,
You stop drinking beer.
When you die,
You stop being here.
When you die some people cry.
When you die we say goodbye.
Yeah.
When You Die – Barnes and Barnes

 

Planned your funeral yet? No? Almost no-one I know has even given it thought. Sure, they might prefer cremation over burial, but they leave things like the style and content of their service to surviving relatives, if they have any. There are those who are very specific about the manner in which their passing should be marked and their remains handled. I distinctly remember many years ago reading about a staunch London socialist who regarded funeral directors as vultures, and thus specified that he should be buried in his own back garden in a coffin made of chipboard, a request carried out by his dutiful son. Not all suggestions are so seriously minded. Luis Buñuel once quipped to friends (on camera) that after he died he wanted his body hung up in the street so that passers-by could spit on him. Most of us unconsciously avoid the whole issue of what happens after our death as it entails directly confronting our mortality, acknowledging on some level that one day, as the above ditty points out, you stop being here.

Not so Gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson, whose plans for his own memorial service were elaborate to the point of implausibility, a last gag on a world that he appeared to enjoy being a creative thorn in the side of. That those who knew and loved him were determined to carry out his last request, no matter how impossible the task may seem, is surely a testament to his impact not just on friends and family but the community in which he lived.

Now before I go any further it might be worth outlining just what this funeral plan consisted of. The centrepiece of the service was to be a monument, a 150 foot high steel arm whose base would be surrounded by a mound of large boulders, its top bearing the two-thumbed fist that had become the emblem of Gonzo, cast in steel and weighing over two tons. The service itself would involve a firework display, the climax of which would see Thompson's ashes blasted a thousand feet up into the air in explosive canisters. The very considerable bill for all this was footed by actor Johnny Depp, a close friend of the writer and who played him in Terry Gilliam's film version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (and is set to star in Bruce Robinson's upcoming film adaptation of Thompson's The Rum Diary).

Behind the camera recording the preparations for the event was documentary filmmaker Wayne Ewing, whose twenty-year collaboration with Thompson resulted in the excellent Breakfast with Hunter and the fascinating and troubling Free Lisl: Fear and Loathing in Denver. It's this long-standing friendship with Hunter and his family that allowed Ewing to get so close to a process from which other media personnel were excluded, to cover every aspect of the monument's construction, from the design to the casting of the fist and installation of a LED-lit flower to the building of the giant arm. There's only one thing missing, a rather important thing in some ways, but I'll get to that later.

The construction of the monument required an alliance of the artistic, the practical and the social, a grand design that could face local opposition and prove an engineering challenge, a 150-foot high steel column that would need sturdy guy-ropes to keep it standing and be erected in a field in which lightning was known to strike (illustrated in a very nice shot in which both the tower and earthed lightning are captured in the same frame). In truth, this dramatic potential soon evaporates due to a combination of professionalism and good luck. Local permission is readily granted, the construction of the monument proves no problem for some first class engineering firms, and the nearest its assembly comes to difficulty is when the covering canvas develops a small tear and has to be sewn up. The firework display is a different matter, the dry weather triggering a fire ban that forbids even outdoor cigarette smoking, and the height of the intended display becomes an issue when the organisers are told that it might potentially conflict with the flight paths of aircraft approaching and leaving the local airport.

But for the most part it's a smooth ride, good news for the event but stripping the narrative of substantial portion of its potential drama. Given that the film is a record of the construction of a memorial this is not really an issue – it would be a little churlish to complain that the planning of a funeral service didn't play to the camera by developing a few problems. What does give the film a bit of a kick in the shins is it's lack of a climax. Although the exclusion of cameras is understandable from what, in spite of its scale, is a private ceremony, all of this extensive groundwork can't help but build anticipation for a collective reaction and appreciation that we never get to see. The fireworks are there, but the faces required to deliver the emotional punch the event deserves – and no doubt had – are off in the darkened distance at a party to which we have not been invited, something that tends to hurt a little after having been so close to its preparation.

If you can live with this then When I Die is still a consistently interesting if teasingly incomplete record of a great writer and individualist's last shout in a world that too often embraces the mundane and the populist over the edgily original. If it seems more easy-going than Ewing's other Hunter Thompson films then that's evidence of the hole that's been left by Thompson's passing. It still has its priceless moments, as when a truck driver delivering part of the monument asks about a man he knows of only through rumour. ""Who is this writer?" he asks. "Somebody told me he's into drugs and guns, and could write. Is that it?" Installation supervisor Dave Baker laughs and says simply, "My kind of guy."

sound and vision

Framed 4:3 and shot on medium to high-band video – I'm guessing DV-CAM but I may be wrong – the transfer is up the the usual standards of Ewing's own DVD releases, with sharpness, colour and contrast all as good as you could hope for. Obviously the video format is NTSC, but there's no regional coding to worry about.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is always clear, the voice recording first rate (not always a vérité strong point) and the typically fine music score very nicely reproduced – it's here that the stereo really kicks in.

extra features

None.

summary

An engaging record of an 'only in America' event in which the sheer scale and audacity of the memorial seem wholly appropriate to the larger-than-life character it is built to commemorate. The film has definite stand-alone appeal, but is obviously going to be of greatest interest to fans of the author, particularly those who've already enjoyed Ewing's other Hunter Thompson films. Despite being released before Free Lisl, When I Die represents the closing chapter in a too-short series – it's just a shame that circumstances have left this well assembled and appropriately respectful film without its grand finale.

When I Die

USA 2005
60 mins
director
Wayne Ewing

DVD details
region 0
video
4:3 OAR
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
none
distributor
Wayne Ewing Films
release date
Out Now
review posted
11 July 2007

related reviews
The Last Campaign
Free Lisl
Breakfast With Hunter

See all of Slarek's reviews